MEXICO CITY — Mexico City--IT'S AS IF THE SCRIPT writers for Central America and Panama had run out of ideas.
Priest killings, peasant massacres, war-maimed children, starvation, raped and tortured nuns, thousands of refugees, the "Just Cause" invasion of Panama, Manuel Noriega's red underwear.
Even a rebel death squad for Salvadoran cows.
American TV viewers have become so inured to the grotesque on the Central American Channel that that they have reached for the remote control and pressed the mute button.
Hadn't the Bush administration pronounced the dawning of democracy, the end of revolutionary ferment and the beginning of a new age?
Who wants to watch the commercials?
* In November 1989, six Salvadoran Jesuits lay like so many dead deer after a hunt.
An enormous Mexican TV cameraman awkwardly panned his lens over the covered bodies. His plastic press credential looked like a hunting license. He moved awkwardly, wiping tears from his eyes as he tried to focus.
Suddenly, his foot slipped on a soft brown lump covered with flies.
The lump was the best brain in El Salvador, that of the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria S.J., rector of the Central American University.
The day before, Father Ellacuria said: "Is this a Divine Comedy or what?" He laughed. "The Americans never learned the lesson of Vietnam: Political conflicts are not solved by military means."
And so Father Ellacuria became another statistic, killed by the military men paid to protect him.
By rough estimates since the 1960s, more than four times as many people died or disappeared in Central America -- about 230,000 -- than all the U.S. combat deaths in Vietnam.
That's 1 percent of the region's population -- the equivalent, in the United States, of 2.5 million people.
* Now in the shadow of an ever-bigger war, Central America has become a backwater once again, all but ignored by the administration.
Presidents tend to define the news. And so the familiar Latin American correspondent in his Banana Republic shirt has added a gas mask and tanker's goggles.
The legions of journalists who flocked to Managua, San Salvador and Panama City have dwindled to a handful. Many of them are now in the Persian Gulf.
Yet the new democracies of this region exist in a world every bit as fragile as before.
Indeed, for many Central Americans, the situation is worse than before the civil wars of the '80s.
The militaries remain entrenched. Principal export crops, such as coffee, are less profitable. And tiny elites continue to control most of the arable land.
The much-heralded democracies are simply new names for the old order. The military occupy de facto seats of power in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
In Panama, the U.S. military is the ultimate force behind the presidential chair -- a fact that became became clear last year when American troops put down a demonstration by disgruntled policemen.
Of the nearly $5.8 billion the U.S. spent on aid for the four anti-Sandinista republics between 1980 and 1990, almost $1 billion was for military aid.
Yet in four of the five central American republics, more than 40 percent of the population is 14 years of age or younger, many of them unable to obtain schooling because they must work to support their family farms.
In Honduras, the poorest of the republics, only 56 percent can read; the average per capita daily wage is $1.31. There is one doctor for every 2,100 persons; in the U.S., it is one doctor for every 410 persons.
A recent United Nations report found seven of every 10 Hondurans living in "extreme poverty."
"Malnutrition is severe, particularly among children, and nearly two-thirds of the population lack adequate housing and sanitary facilities," said a recent World Bank report.
The civil wars and economic crisis produced a monumental diaspora.
The United States in the past 10 years has accepted as legal immigrants more than 335,000 persons from Central America and Panama. No one knows how many illegal immigrants there are. More than 150,000 other refugees live in the region.
But to many experts, these official numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. For example, unofficial estimates put the number of illegal Salvadoran refugees alone at over a million.
* "It should be emphasized . . . that the United States has supported and helped train Latin American military leaders since the 1960s," wrote Monsignor Marcos McGrath, C.S.C., the Panamanian archbishop.
"The region has paid dearly for the United States' misconception that the Latin American military would follow the U.S. practice of submission to civilian authority," he wrote in a dissenting comment in the 1990 report of the Inter-American Dialogue, a blue-ribbon panel that includes former President Jimmy Carter.
The combined military forces of the six countries are roughly 166,000 -- about 40,000 more men than the regular army of Mexico, a country with a population nearly four times as large.
In Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, the military establishments remain forces unto themselves, while nominally accepting civilian authority.
Although the Central American governments are to meet next month to try to limit the size of their forces, it is doubtful control will shift to civilian authorities.
While Nicaragua has cut its army from 80,000 men -- at the height of the contra war -- to about 20,000, it still remains in the hands of the Sandinistas, the Marxist former ruling party. Recent decrees announced by U.S.-backed President Violeta Chamorro
effectively will continue Sandinista control of the military.
Although Nicaraguan army chief Humberto Ortega recently punished former and current military men for selling anti-aircraft rockets to the Salvadoran rebels, it remains to be seen where the army's true loyalty will lie if there is a showdown with the Sandinista trade unions. So far the bizarre coalition of Mrs. Chamorro and General Ortega has held.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has allocated about $600 million in aid for Nicaragua's war-ravaged economy. The country had a 12,000 percent inflation rate last year and the cordoba is currently selling on the black market at about 5 million to the dollar.
The Guatemalan military continues to be one of the most corrupt in Latin America, with senior officers routinely retiring to Miami with multi-million-dollar bank accounts. Its 50,000-man force is largely made up of Indian conscripts ruled by a light-skinned elite of pronounced right-wing views.
Since the 1960s, human rights groups have blamed the army for the disappearance or murder of more than 115,000 persons. The Bush administration recently cut off $2.8 million in military aid after the massacre of 21 peasants and the murder of an American.
But the military has shown no sign of changing. It recently said that it would need even more men to fight about 800 guerrillas. Newly elected President Jorge Serrano Elias tried to negotiate changes in the senior command but was told to mind his own business.
In Honduras, a recently-named new military chief was dumped because he failed to forestall cuts in the army's budget.
Others say he was bounced because his fellow officers found his anti-communism so outlandish as to bring his sanity into question. The Pentagon has close ties to the Honduran military because it seeks to keep a 1,500-man "temporary" air base and other secret sites in that country. Several Honduran commanders have also retired to Miami with multi-million-dollar bank accounts gained by kickbacks in awarding contracts.
When Honduran civilian leaders timidly suggested a smaller military force, they were told "that one should not meddle with a tiger."
Another tiger is the 56,000-man Salvadoran military -- despite human rights lectures from Vice President Dan Quayle and William J. Casey, the late CIA chief. Aside from evidence linking the military to the murder of the Jesuit priests, it was most recently implicated in the massacre of 15 peasants.
All efforts to negotiate a U.N. cease-fire with the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front have been thwarted by the military's refusal to diminish its role.
Congress cut Salvadoran military aid to $42.5 million but gave President Bush the right to increase it to $85 million if the rebels mounted a major offensive. He has since indicated he will allocate the remainder of the aid after two downed U.S. airmen were assassinated by the rebels. The FMLN has promised to try the killers.
But the president is holding off in hopes his patience will bring about a cease-fire and allow for peaceful off-year elections March 10. The war has claimed about 72,000 lives.
With the departure of General Noriega, Panama has replaced its military with a 10,000-man police force. The civilian-led police force is being resisted by some Pentagon officials and ex-Noriega officers who believe the country should have a military force capable of defending the Panama Canal. The government of President Guillermo Endara recently set up a secret CIA-sponsored security force.
A former colonel -- once the darling of the Pentagon -- is awaiting trial on charges of trying to destabilize the government. More than $1 million has been stolen in bank robberies in the past year, and drug shipments are said to be larger than under General Noriega.
U.S.-Panama relations have become somewhat strained because Washington has provided only about $100 million of a promised $460 million in aid. Much of the aid is conditioned on Panama's signing a treaty that would give the U.S. access to secret banking records -- a move that would damage the country's substantial offshore banking business.
Meanwhile, unemployment is running between 20 and 30 percent, fueling anti-American sentiment.
While Costa Rica officially has no army, it does have a security force of police, coast guardsmen and intelligence agents that amount to about 10,000.
During the contra war, the country permitted the creation of contra bases and one president was recently linked to payments by the CIA. Another president has been tied to drug dealings with the Noriega regime. It is the only Central American country with a mutual defense treaty with the U.S.
John McClintock covers Latin America from The Sun's Mexico